Stop throwing smartphones away
One of the more puzzling features of modern smartphones and related industries is the idea of in-built obsolescence, where a piece of technology is designed to fail after a certain length of time so you have to buy a new version – the “puzzling” part of all this being why the practise is allowed in the first place.
Perhaps an answer can be found in the technology’s reach. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) enables the modern world to function through a global communication and computation network. There isn’t really anything in modern society which isn’t on some level defined by ICT. If it were all to stop working tomorrow then we would be in a lot of trouble.
When a technology becomes so ubiquitous it is easy to forget it is there, and to thereby not take it into account when a problem arises. When the problem is climate change, things like pollution spewing factories or the cars choking our cities to death are much more visible, and softer, targets.
However, it is probably time to ignore the advice constantly pouring out of self-help guides and begin to pay more attention to our smartphones.
A recent study from McMaster University, Canada on the impact of ICT from 2010-2020 – including phones, computers, servers and everything else – has painted a stark picture of the challenge ahead of us. Even considering the move away from giant computers to tiny phones, the carbon footprint of ICT has tripled since 2007 and is set to make up 14% of all carbon emissions worldwide by 2020.
The issue with smartphones in particular concerns the previously mentioned in-built obsolescence. When you are encouraged, or forced, to discard your phone every two years the environmental consequences become outsized. 85%-95% of the CO2 produced over the average two year lifespan of a modern smartphone is created during the construction process; only between 15% and 5% is from the power it takes to charge over that time period. To illustrate the point further, making a brand new smartphone uses as much energy as operating an existing one for a decade.
Even if everyone kept their current phone for just another year it would make a big difference.
So what is the solution? As always, this isn’t an issue which can be fixed by any one designer or technology firm. Whilst governments continue to pursue economic growth over the long-term sustainability of the planet, the legislative route is closed. In the meantime, we as consumers can begin to force change, for instance by purchasing a cheap replacement battery for our existing handset rather than buying a new one. Phone companies will get the message sooner or later.